When used correctly, hooks are one of the most powerful ways a writer can keep a reader flipping pages well into the night. However, the majority of writers end up using them incorrectly. It’s important to realize why.
Hooks are the kind of tool that won’t hurt your writing if they aren’t used, but will help it greatly if they are. Do you want to propel your readers from one chapter to the next? Isn’t one of the most obvious signs of a great book the fact that you can’t put it down?
Nothing can propel people through a book like an engaging story – there’s no way around that – but combining an engaging story with a good hook means that even if it’s 4am and they have work tomorrow, readers will keep telling themselves ‘just one more chapter’ until the sun comes up.
The problem is that writers often confuse good hooks with something more akin to a one-line marketing ploy. Think about how often you’ve read a chapter that starts like this:
“He didn’t see it coming until it was too late.
It was a warm day outside, and he strolled through the park slowly. The sunlight lit up the individual blades of grass and cast tree-shaped shadows down the sloping lawn. A light breeze blew through the…”
Do you feel cheated? A little. Do you see straight through the fast one the writer just tried to pull over on you? Probably.
Unfortunately, this is what most hooks look like today. A gimmicky one line opening meant to carry you through one or several pages of boring exposition until the action picks back up. I know I’ve done this plenty of times, and I bet a lot of you have too. There’s nothing wrong with that, we didn’t know any better. But a hook is so much more than a one-liner.
A real hook sets the tone for the chapter. An intense first line, if followed by a slow scene, disrupts the audience’s stream of reading. An intense first line followed by an intense scene is fantastic. Our hooks are a promise – they tell the reader what to expect.
If you can keep the intensity up for several pages, by all means give us an explosive first line. We’ll probably read that chapter in the blink of an eye and enjoy every page of it. If your scene isn’t action packed but is emotionally intense, start with a first line that shows the strengths of emotional tension. We should enhance the strengths of our chapter, not make them up.
And perhaps just as important, don’t limit your hook to just one line. A hook can continue for a paragraph or a page. A hook can continue for an entire chapter. For as long as you can keep the intense style of writing up, keep it up. The same goes for end-of-chapter hooks: a cliffhanger isn’t just a final line that reads, “And then the lights went off.” A cliffhanger is a paragraph or page that sets us up so well that we need to find out what happens after the lights go off. An intense line that seems random doesn’t give us enough time to become invested in the outcome, and it just feels cheap. Spend time to develop your closing hooks – your readers will notice the difference (and find themselves finishing your books twice as fast).
To wrap it all up, a one line hook that sets false expectations for the chapter won’t keep someone reading. But a hook that flows so strongly into a scene that the reader can’t even find a natural place to pause will make sure he remains stuck in place, unable to stop himself from flipping the pages even if he can smell dinner burning in the next room.
For more information on hooks, there is a great chapter on them in The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.
What do you think? Do you often find single-line hooks that are out of place in a particular scene? Have you used them yourself? Can you think of a time when an opening line was more like an opening paragraph or page, and you simply couldn’t stop yourself from reading the entire chapter?